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Q&A: How Hospitals are Failing to Engage Patients on Facebook

November 21, 2012
by Gabriel Perna
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There is a gap between what patients want and what they're getting in healthcare social media

Over the course of his career in product development for the Texas Hospital Association, Reed Smith saw Facebook come of age and recognized the platform’s potential for offering providers a way to improve their patients’ experience. Smith even created a guide for hospitals to use social media and held a conference on the topic. Yet despite its potential, he just saw one problem, which largely remains in place today.

The hospitals weren’t, and still aren’t, doing a good job of actually engaging patients on the platform. Various studies have suggested providers are still trying to figure out the best way to utilize social media.  As a strategic consultant for provider organizations and as the founder of the Social Health Institute, he is looking to change that. The Institute, he says, is aiming to gather data on how hospitals are using social media and use that it as a way to figure out where they can do better.

As part of the Institute’s initial project, Smith looked at how 13 different hospitals were using Facebook from May to August of this year. He measured how much time the hospital dedicated to the page weekly, how many administrators there were, which days were most popular to post, how many posts there were, what kinds of updates were most popular, and which posts got the most engagement from patients. (See Smith’s infographic for a look at some of the results)

Healthcare Informatics Associate Editor Gabriel Perna recently sat down with Smith to talk about this study, what he found, and what he thinks hospitals need to do better to engage their patients. Excerpts from that interview are below.

What made you choose Facebook for this study?

If you look at usage on any social media platform, Facebook will obviously be the most utilized. It’s the most relevant to a consumer audience. If you start to look at who the fans are of hospitals on Facebook, it is females ages 25-45. This is the audience you are trying to reach as a hospital.  So it becomes a really good and really important platform for external communications, and even some internal communications, because of the size of Facebook. We wanted to look at data around this. We wanted to see what hospitals were doing versus where is the engagement and find out if there is something we can learn from that.

What were some of the results of this study?

We have felt that the middle of the week was the ideal time to post for a number of reasons. And we saw that, with Wednesday, Thursday, Tuesday, in that order, are the most popular days, that these hospitals are currently posting on Facebook, from a volume standpoint. But then when we look to see when they were getting the most engagements, those were their posts on Monday, Friday, and Sunday. So they are spending a lot of time posting in the middle of week, but the beginning and of the week is where we’re seeing the flow of engagement.

Then we looked, topically speaking, at what types of updates they were posting – a photo, a link, a poll question, something you share, a video or simple status update.  We broke out the updates into these categories and found that 52 percent were links. We then looked at what were the engagements for each of these. We found overwhelmingly, and we kind of knew this already, that photos create the highest level of engagement. Almost 65 percent of engagements came on photos. So we found that most people are posting a link, but the highest engagement is with a photo.

We then tried to break out the posts into various categories, like was it an informative post, news, a personal update, or were they marketing the hospital’s services? Most were event-based, informational posts. The lowest numbers of posts were a personal story or testimony, only nine percent. If you look at engagements though, the highest amount came in that personal story. Again, it’s a visualization of what types of information are we putting out there versus what types of information are producing the highest level of engagement.

If you look at this, we should all post on Mondays, Fridays, and Sundays and post pictures that have to do with personal stories. Is that true 100 percent of the time? Probably not. But this is neat way to initially look at a broad brush stroke. It’s a jumping-off point.

Each hospital had an average about 1.3 posts per day over the time period. Obviously, I’m guessing some had more and some had less, but were you surprised it was this amount?

They’re posting one per day. It’s low compared to other verticals. I don’t think it’s low based on hospitals. Some hospitals in general are lucky to post once a day. They might post once, twice a week. And some do a good job, and have three updates a day. Again, everyone is in a different place. Most hospitals and healthcare systems don’t have a social media or community manager. This is part of someone’s job. Whereas other industries, if you look at the larger brands that do things well, have lots of people on their social media teams. We haven’t seen that in healthcare, specifically hospitals.

I think people have gotten involved with Facebook because they understand it personally, and saw a possible professional tie-in. That’s still there and still true, but 100 percent haven’t tied this back to the growth initiatives of the hospital or understanding what are they are trying to accomplish. They haven’t figure out if they are on Facebook because other hospitals are, of if there is something of value and that can provide value to them.

From what you saw, do providers need to a better job engaging their patients on Facebook, or are they doing enough as is?

As an industry, we need to do a better job. We have allowed Facebook to be a marketing platform, and that’s not what people want. They don’t want to hear from the marketing director. They want to hear from a doctor, a nurse, an athletic trainer. They want to hear from someone who has relevant knowledge to them in their daily lives. If we use these platforms to provide these tools and resources to our communities, we have a much better chance of creating that level of trust that when they do need something, we’re who they come to at that time. We’re really talking more about patient experience, patient engagement, and less about marketing our services. We have an opportunity with these platforms to do that. We just need to take advantage.

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